Maine Voices: Now is not the time to stop masking up at school

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We are writing on behalf of the Maine Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, to urge parents and school boards to continue to listen to pediatric experts, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, who continue to strongly recommend the wearing of masks in American schools.

Teacher Kellie Beres, standing, works with Jossolyn Riccardo, a junior from Old Orchard Beach High School, during a recent anatomy and physiology class. Maine did not have a statewide school mask mandate this school year. Instead, districts have opted to exempt unvaccinated students from quarantine if there is a case of COVID in a classroom in which universal masking is used. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Pediatric COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are being seen at higher levels than ever before, both locally and nationally. Death rates remain incredibly high, with around 2,500 people dying every day in the United States. Nearly 1,000 children in the United States have died during this pandemic, far more than in any flu season, and this is thanks to mitigation strategies, including masking, in place. The omicron variant has driven this increase, with more than 600,000 children infected in recent weeks.

Amidst this wave, there are new calls to unmask in schools. Proponents of unmasking children are sounding the alarm about pediatric mental health, and they’re right — pediatric mental health issues have reached crisis levels. However, at a time when more than 200,000 children have lost a caregiver to COVID, parents have lost their jobs, and children’s routines have been disrupted, can we definitively say that removing masks will restore sanity? Maine’s current COVID protocols have encouraged a normal routine for children. Throughout the 2021-2022 school year, Maine did not have a statewide mask mandate for schools. Instead, districts have opted to follow CDC and AAP recommendations for safe schools, which allow unvaccinated children to be exempted from school quarantine if there is a case of COVID in an area. classroom in which universal masking is used. In other words, masking serves to keep children in school, where many young people are accessing vital services, including counsellors, and continuing with their much-needed routines, thereby improving their mental health.

What about encouraging at-risk children to wear masks and leaving others maskless? The challenges of this proposal are numerous. Encouraging a child outside of a classroom to wear a mask sets that child up for failure due to peer pressure and singles them out based on medical or social conditions. Medical-grade N95 masks aren’t available for pediatric patients, and KN95 masks aren’t well-researched and don’t fit and are expensive. A quick Google search reveals a box of 10 KN95 masks available for $15-$20, and most kids need two masks a day — that’s a week’s supply. For a family of three children, one of whom is high-risk, one-way masking could quickly cost more than their weekly grocery bill. Equity issues abound in this proposition, especially since public education must be accessible to all.

Our children are lucky to be vaccinated, and it is the most essential thing we can do for them to protect them from serious consequences. However, in Cumberland County, the most vaccinated county in the state, more than 40% of elementary-aged children are unvaccinated. Statewide, less than half of adults are boosted. These vaccination rates are insufficient to prevent outbreaks in schools and communities without other mitigation strategies.

Several studies, from Wisconsin, North Carolina, Arizona, California, Georgia, Florida and other states, describe the benefits of masking in schools to prevent the spread, or provide cautionary tales of when masks are not worn. Absolutely no studies describe the negative results of masks; indeed, in many Asian countries, masking, even of children, during cold and flu season is a cultural norm. There is data describing 2-year-olds as better able to understand spoken words through a face mask compared to a clear face shield, and there is data that pediatric patients in hospital have no preference for unmasked caregivers versus masked caregivers.

Schools are essential and must be safe. The AAP acknowledges this and recognizes that universal masking is the safest and most secure way to keep them safe and open. A time will come when the omicron push will be behind us, community rates will have reached a sustained low, and vaccine rates will be high enough that masks can come off in schools. But at a time when hospitals are seeing more pediatric COVID patients than ever before, masks are the easiest way to keep kids in school, getting them learning, and supporting their mental health.


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